2020 has been an unprecedented year for everyone, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adapt to a new normal that is constantly changing. The pandemic has particularly emphasized the importance of policies to help people lead healthier lifestyles and mitigate disease, like mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines. In addition, the need for public health policies has been amplified, as research shows that people with obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as cancer, are more likely to suffer worse outcomes from COVID-19.
For the past two years, AICR has strategically joined other voices in the cancer research community to advocate for policies that make it easier for people to lead a healthy, cancer-protective lifestyle. While 2020 certainly required some pivoting, AICR continued this fight throughout the year by advocating for bills that make it easier for cancer survivors to access nutrition counseling, federal dietary guidelines that align with our recommendations and meaningful increases in federal funding for cancer research, including supplemental funding to help offset the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer researchers nationwide.
Federal Funding for Cancer Research
This year, with the focus on COVID-relief packages, many Americans have found themselves paying more attention than ever to spending bills passing through Congress. As we noted last year, one of AICR’s policy priorities is increasing federal funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including the National Cancer Institute (NCI), in order to accelerate cancer research, particularly research on cancer prevention and survival through lifestyle factors. In addition to these asks this year, we have also supported provisions within emergency supplemental bills to provide additional federal funding to offset the impact that the pandemic has had on cancer research.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down research labs across the country, pressing pause on the important work being done by cancer researchers and halting potential progress. Through the supplemental bills that have been passed thus far, the NIH has received more than $3.5 billion in emergency funds, although much of this has gone directly to research on COVID-19 itself. In September, AICR participated in the Rally for Medical Research to ask Congress for an additional $15 billion to help ramp up non-COVID research that was impacted by the pandemic. While this number was introduced as part of the Senate HEALS Act, Congress has yet to agree on another emergency supplemental bill. As part of our work with One Voice Against Cancer, AICR has joined forces with other organizations to urge swift passage of an emergency supplemental bill that provides relief to researchers nationwide, as progress made in the field of cancer research cannot continue to be stalled.
AICR also utilized our unique position to advocate for measurable increases to the NIH budget in fiscal year 2021, with proportional increases for the NCI. Working through coalitions such as One Voice Against Cancer, we asked for $44.7 billion for the NIH, with $6.4 billion for NCI. After months of negotiating, Congress voted to pass, and the President signed into law, a spending bill including a $1.25 billion increase in funding for the NIH, with a nearly $1.2 million increase for the NCI. Congress also voted to pass additional emergency supplemental funding to address the COVID-19 pandemic. While some funding was provided to the NIH to accelerate COVID-19 research, there was no supplemental funding allocated to help restart research impacted by the pandemic. While these funding levels did not meet the asks of AICR and other organizations, we believe that these increases are reflective of bipartisan support of the lifesaving research done through these entities.
As we move into the new year, we will continue to fight to hold government officials accountable for providing meaningful relief for scientists working at the NIH and NCI during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as robust funding increases for these divisions to ensure that progress made in cancer prevention research is not lost.
A multi-year process of the US Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) is complete and the new Dietary Guidelines were released on December 29, 2020. The DGAs are the federal government’s official recommendations regarding food and nutrition and they inform the nutrition standards for all federal programs, policies and messaging such as MyPlate. In July, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) released their scientific report, which provides evidentiary support for what a healthy dietary pattern looks like for Americans. This report served as the basis for the development of the Dietary Guidelines. As outlined in previous blogs, AICR was involved in this process at every step in an effort to ensure that these guidelines, and the programs that they provide the basis for, align with the evidence surrounding cancer prevention and survivorship. This effort is part of AICR’s priority to ensure that government guidelines for food and nutrition are based on cancer prevention research.
As part of this, AICR submitted several comment letters in 2020 urging the DGAC to consider key areas in which AICR has strong evidence that certain dietary components can have an effect on cancer risk, such as our evidence on the link between diets high in red and processed meats and colorectal cancer. The DGAC’s Scientific Report provided a number of recommendations that aligned with AICR’s Cancer Prevention Recommendations, particularly the recommendations to incorporate more whole grains, fruits and vegetables into your diet and avoid red and processed meats; lower your intake of added sugars; and limit alcohol intake. AICR was most vocal in our support of the recommendation to limit alcohol intake amongst men, as alcohol consumption has been found to increase the risk of six separate types of cancer. Regardless of this statistic, less than half of all Americans recognize alcohol as a cancer risk, underscoring the need for government guidelines that outline this dangerous connection.
AICR has released a statement on the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that is available here. We will continue to provide resources to help the public understand and translate the recommendations for themselves and their families.
Medical Nutrition Therapy Act of 2020
In mid-2020, AICR signed on in support of the Medical Nutrition Therapy Act, a bill aiming to expand access to nutrition counseling for patients living with chronic disease, including cancer. This bill, which would increase access to this important therapy by providing coverage through Medicare, was introduced in early 2020 and would provide much-needed assistance to cancer survivors who often want this information but are left to navigate a complex healthcare system with little to no assistance. This bill would also help to reduce the burden on registered dietitians, as increased funding through insurance coverage could provide more jobs for registered dietitians who provide this service and help reduce a high provider-to-patient ratio. As we move into the new year and a new Congress, AICR will once again advocate for this bipartisan legislation so that cancer survivors can be empowered with the nutritional knowledge to help them manage side effects and recurrence risk during and after treatment.
The Physical Activity Alliance
As part of AICR’s priority to integrate cancer prevention research into government guidelines on physical activity, we have joined forces with other prominent groups such as the American Heart Association, American College of Lifestyle Medicine, American College of Sports Medicine and others to establish the Physical Activity Alliance. The core purpose of this alliance is to make the choice to be physically active the easy choice for all Americans through promoting evidence-based policies and opportunities for physical activity within different sectors of the economy. AICR is involved with a number of initiatives through this coalition, such as integrating physical activity prescription into the healthcare system. We expect this coalition to become increasingly active over the next year and we will share the exciting ways we are engaging as part of this group in 2021.
AICR is looking forward to the new year and the opportunities that will come with 2021. In addition to paying careful attention to the specific policy topics listed above, we will also engage in new efforts to accomplish our specific policy priorities. In order to jumpstart our work with the incoming Biden Administration, we have sent a letter to the transition team outlining these priorities so that we can work closely over the next four years to establish cancer care and prevention, particularly through lifestyle factors, as a cornerstone issue to be addressed by the new administration and Congress.
If you’re interested in staying up-to-date on AICR’s policy work, keep an eye on the new policy page on our website, which has been updated to reflect our most recent work, including the comment letters and initiatives we have signed onto. You can also sign up for periodic updates to stay informed about our work.